Japanese companies ride U.S. light rail boom

by Scott Dixon

Kyodo

Despite America’s reputation for relying solely on automobiles to get around, major metropolitan areas across the country are increasingly turning to light rail as a way to transport commuters, relieve congestion and reduce air pollution, with some agencies using Japanese rail cars.

Around 30 metro areas in the United States have a light rail system and ridership is on the rise with more than 500 million passengers using the trains in 2013, more than 60 percent higher than 10 years ago, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Light rail transit, or LRT, is a form of public transportation meant to carry fewer passengers than “heavy rail” and uses electric cars that have their own right of way or mix with vehicle traffic. The cars generally have low-level boarding and operate alone or attached to others as a short train.

Osaka-based manufacturer Kinki Sharyo Co. has been providing LRT carriages to the U.S. since 1986, when it delivered 100 specially designed rail cars to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to update Boston’s light rail network.

“We had to design a light rail car that would fit well with the historic streets of Boston. And we’re happy our specially designed and city-specific cars have been well received,” said Kinki Sharyo marketing director Kenji Minai.

The company supplies seven transit agencies around the country with 568 light rail cars. In addition, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority will begin accepting deliveries of 78 cars in late October to replace its current rolling stock as well as supply new cars for lines under construction.

Nagoya-based manufacturer Nippon Sharyo Ltd. has been providing the California agency with light rail vehicles since 1989 to connect downtown Los Angeles with neighboring Long Beach.

Besides Japanese manufacturers, U.S. transportation agencies have ordered light rail cars from such global manufacturers as Germany’s Siemens AG and Italy’s AnsaldoBreda S.p.A. Siemens says about 1,000 of its light rail cars are operating in 17 cities across North America, making it the largest supplier.

More than 30 metro areas around the United States are building new lines or have plans to expand their light rail networks, such as Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which serves 13 cities in sprawling urban and suburban northern Texas. DART’s most recent project has been to extend one of its lines to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The Texas agency, which opened its first light rail routes in 1996, launched an 8-km extension on Aug. 18 to link the major airport to its 145-km-long network. The single-seat ride to downtown Dallas takes about 50 minutes.

“In the United States, we’ve been a bit slow, frankly, to accept public transit opportunities,” DART CEO Gary Thompson said at a media preview of the new airport line in July. “This is something that really is expected when you go to Asia or Europe.”

Working closely with the airport, which built the new station, DART expects about 1,200 people to use the new route daily when it opens and for ridership to quickly increase.

“We are starting to see the opportunity for our customers in North Texas to be able to get to the airport, to get to jobs around the airport or at the airport and to get to any place around the world,” Thompson said. “It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s efficient.”

Besides connecting its rail network to the airport, DART is planning to extend another line about 4 km south to a university campus to link it with the rest of the system.

Kinki Sharyo supplies DART with the zero-emission trains, and the Texas agency now uses 163 Super LRVs that were specially modified to fit three cars onto one train, boosting capacity.

With construction costs for light rail projects averaging about 10 percent of the price for building a similarly sized subway system, light rail is a popular option for transportation agencies that want to expand quickly and with the support of local taxpayers and politicians.

“There is a growing demand, with the new generation, the existing folks, they’re all seeking a more cost-effective, predictable, reliable way to get to and from any point where they want to go,” Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Vice President of Operations Jim Crites said about the embrace of light rail in north Texas and around the United States.